How do you decide something is a good story? Do you judge that by the genre or by the quality of the characters?
For me, the latter is by far the most important criterion. Really good characters stay with you long after you’ve finished reading or listening to the story.
If you look at what your favourite films are (and they’re just stories in a visual format when all is said and done), what do you remember best? Almost certainly specific scenes and the characters in those. (Hands up. For me, this is The Lord of the Rings at the moment where Sauron’s ring is destroyed and Mordor falls. I can see this scene in my mind’s eye as I type this and I can see the faces of the main characters as they take in the enormity of what has happened).
The lovely thing with stories is the characters don’t have to be likeable. I wouldn’t have wanted anything to do with Ebenezer Scrooge before he met the ghosts of Christmas Past, Christmas Present, and Christmas Yet to Come in A Christmas Carol. (I’m not on a commission incidentally to see how many times I can get the word Christmas into a sentence, honestly!).
My Reading “Diet”
A story, for me, has to entertain but I like reading crime tales, as well as humorous fiction. A little horror gets thrown into my reading mix every so often too. I also adore historical fiction and my appetite for reading good quality non-fiction has grown a lot in the last few years.
I love having a good reading “diet”. It keeps things interesting and story and article ideas spark from what you take in. No one writer can know it all so you read to find things out and, when reading fiction, you are taking in how that author wrote their characters, even if you are not consciously analysing the work for that.
You take far more in subconsciously than you realise at the time. I’ve found this happens a lot when writing non-fiction posts like this one. I will think of something I’ve read somewhere and realise it ties in beautifully with my theme for this week and so I use it. The wider I read, the wider my “ideas net” is cast. Naturally I only want to read (and write, I hope!) good material.
If a book doesn’t work for me fairly quickly, I will not finish reading it. Life is too short to waste on what for me is proving to be a “dud”. (Though I will add I am glad to say this happens very rarely and even then I can learn something from why the story concerned didn’t grip me. It tells me what to avoid in my own work!).
Wanting to Read
The best non-fiction works use fictional techniques to get their facts across in an entertaining way. I love that. I think it is probably the single most important thing to have happened to non-fiction in recent years. (I recall when non-fiction would have been thought to be only encyclopedias, the dictionary, and dull but worthy lists of facts. I think travel writing has probably done a lot here to turn sharing experiences into interesting stories people want to read).
And it is getting people to want to read that is key here, something any writer knows. People need to know they are going to get a good story out of you! So think about what you would want to find in a story you’re reading. Are you finding those things? Yes? Good. Look at how the writer has achieved that. This is why reading widely and well is crucial for writers, no matter what stage they’re at.
A sign of a classic book is when a mention of a character’s name from it passes into the language. Dear old Ebenezer is a great example though it is ironic that when we refer to someone being a Scrooge, we are inferring they are miserly. People forget Scrooge changed, which was the whole point of A Christmas Carol. (Best version on screen? Easily The Muppet Christmas Carol with Michael Caine though I do also love the Patrick Stewart version).
The ultimate story test of course is did I want to put the story down? I remember when I first read The Lord of the Rings I would use every five minutes spare to read a bit more. I hated having to leave the book to get on with other matters.
Some characters change their entire story genre too. Sherlock Holmes is a good example of this. A genius and a flawed character rolled into one – Conan Doyle set something going there! It is very hard to imagine detective stories now where the lead doesn’t have a major fault.
My Top Stories
Good stories are adaptable to other medium too. What would I list as my top stories? This is not the be all and end all as good stories come along all the time but I would have to include:-
A Christmas Carol
The Lord of the Rings
The Daughter of Time
Pride and Prejudice
Images below taken from the CFT archive.
Going Postal – Terry Pratchett (without giving too much away here, the story starts with the hero being hanged and goes on from there! Do check it out. I really am not giving too much away as you’ll find out!).
A History of Britain – Simon Schama (these were the books based on the TV series. Both were excellent. It is the narrative style here that brings familiar and not-so-familiar aspects of British history to life for me here).
The Reader’s Digest Collected Fairytales. (This is a two volume set and contains the classic tales collected and written by Grimm, Andersen, Perrault etc. Beautifully illustrated too. So many of these tales have been adapted by Disney who would have had to adapt some of them. The original The Little Mermaid would have been far too dark as a movie had they stuck faithfully to Andersen’s tale – and this was an eye opener for me. It is the first fairytale I had read without a happy ending. I recall wishing at the time there had been a happy ending but later appreciated why Andersen had written it the way he had. He stuck to his guns, rightly so, when writing the story he wanted to tell.).
All of the above show there has to be something unforgettable about the tales to grip me and to make me easily recall them.
There have been individual stories (as opposed to books) that have gripped me too – Lamb to the Slaughter by Roald Dahl is a favourite here. (Probably one of the most famous in his Tales of the Unexpected series and understandably too. Loved the theme tune for that series too).
And there is nothing, I tell you nothing, to beat the sublime The Great Sermon Handicap by P.G. Wodehouse which works as a stand alone story as well as part of his The Inimitable Jeeves (and he so is!). I am glad Wodehouse is now finally commemorated in Westminster Abbey in Poets Corner. Wodehouse was such a wonderful humorist and inspired so many.
And, as a Christian, the Christmas story always has special meaning for me.
So over to you now. What are your favourite stories and why? Are there specific stories you read at certain times of year? Are there stories you would never read again? Do share!
And talking of sharing, here are two of my Christmas related flash fiction tales. Hope you enjoy them.
AN UNEXPECTED STOP
‘You do know at what speed you were travelling, sir?’
‘Er… no… officer, I’m afraid I was concentrating on getting to my next destination. I have to cover everyone on my list, you see, and I don’t have much time. Was it important?’
‘I’ll say so, sir. You will cause chaos flying at that speed. If everyone did that there’d be accidents galore.’
‘But, officer, it’s Christmas Eve, I’m Santa Claus, there’s nobody up here except us and I’d love to know how YOU got here.’
THE FIRST CHRISTMAS EVE
The innkeeper smiled, having seen his guests to the last available room.
Nobody else would be disturbing his sleep tonight then.
May I wish you all a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.
Read blog posts by Allison Symes published on Chandler’s Ford Today.
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